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Posted at: Jan 14, 2018, 1:43 AM; last updated: Jan 14, 2018, 1:43 AM (IST)

Sturdy, and not so slow

The name is a misnomer; sloth bears aren’t as sluggish as they are touted to be. Let them smell food, and they will reveal their true self
Sturdy, and not so slow
Photo by the writer

Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

South American sloths are really slow: they’re probably the slowest mammals on earth. Our sloth bears are not, as we discovered in Karnataka’s Daroji Sanctuary.  

From the gate of the sanctuary, trails wound through the thorn scrub and boulders, with euphorbia cactus thrusting up like green candlesticks from between the brown rocks, and fodder grass, spreading in large green swathes. 

“What’s the bear population?” we asked our guide

“About 100.”

We had stopped at a small clearing in the thorny thickets of acasia. To our left was a rising outcrop of ochre-coloured boulders, piled one atop the other, with small, sloping, terraces in between. A group of forest guards waited with buckets in their hands. Some of the buckets held sticky, sweet, boiled rice, the others were filled with a treacle-like solution of gur and water. Bears have a ravenous sweet tooth. 

The forest guards spread out carrying their pails of goodies. They slopped the sweet rice in pudding-piles on the rocks, smeared other boulders with dripping, tacky, gur-treacle.

“Please don’t get out of the cars,” our guide advised. 

An adult male sloth bear could weigh up to 145 kg, rise to six-and-a-half feet when standing on their hind legs. “The species being short of sight and hard of hearing, are more often than not, taken by surprise at sudden close encounters with man. These are really dangerous moments when bears attack furiously in self-defence.” according to the Forest Department’s pamphlet on Daroji.

“How do they know that the picnic has been laid out?,” we asked.

“They have a very keen sense of smell… There, they’ve come!”

At first, two hairy, black shadows rose over the rim of the rocks. They grew into bristly heads with beady eyes. Then, two bears emerged and shuffled down the rocks, snuffling and snorting. Three more appeared. And then a lone one. Sloth bears have long, hairless snouts, specially evolved to act as vacuum cleaners as they suck in termites from holes in white-ant mounds, ripped apart by the bears’ long, white, talons. With six bears bustling around, it sounded like a yard of steam engines. They looked up, occasionally, stared at us, then reassured by the presence of their uniformed hosts, went back to their picnic. Two of them, more venturesome than the others, stood up on their hind legs and sucked in the treacle dripping from a high boulder. 

A large male left his rice pudding, and shuffled forward, towards us. We felt a tingle run down our vertebrae. He came close enough for us to see the ruff around his neck and his soft, brown eyes. He looked speculatively at us for some time, one of the forest guards moved his long, staff, from his left hand to his right. The bear shifted his gaze as if assessing the threat posed by the guard. Turned around, slowly, and went back to his pudding. 

We had been holding our breaths. Then we noticed the birds. They were the size of partridges but not as tubby. Some were dun-coloured and very dowdy. Others wore a speckled plumage with a pink blush at the base of their tails. They grazed fearlessly among the snuffling, shuffling, bears. One even bustled between the legs of a large male to get at the scattered grains of rice pudding. 

“They’re painted spur fowl,” we were told. They’re fairly common here, but rather rare elsewhere and the bears don’t object to them joining their picnic. Possibly, the bears welcome the birds as early warning systems, alerting them to daytime dangers that they cannot see because of their short-sightedness.

Bears usually come out at night, relying on their strong sense of smell. But today, possibly because of the heavy cloud cover, and the enticement of the picnic, they had decided to risk stepping out during the day. Now, however, that the picnic was over, the six, black, shaggy sloth bears turned around, slowly, and began to shuffle away. 

We stood, gazing at them a little sadly till, eventually all our bears went over the mountain: possibly, to see what they could see.

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